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Clog dance

Photograph of clog dancers at Newcastle. 1916.<p>
Photograph of clog dancers at Newcastle. 1916.


A Brief History of Clog Dancing

Clog dance is a solo step-dance performed in clogs. It developed during the nineteenth century in the industrial areas of England and Southern Scotland and reached its peak of popularity between 1880 and 1904. Like an early form of ’Street Dance’, it involved dancers who had no formal training, was highly competitive, and developed a very skilful and complex repertoire.

Early forms of solo dance - the Galliard

This became very popular as a court dance in Elizabethan England (1558-1603). It was a couple dance that contained solo stepping sections for both male and female to ’show-off’ to each other. As a consequence, Queen Elizabeth adored it and male courtiers started to compete over athleticism and complexity. Special teachers or ’dancing masters’ were in great demand, though the Galliard was eventually considered too ’exhibitionist’ for the royal court.

The Hornpipe - a stage dance

During the eighteenth century, solo hornpipes were performed by professional dancers on the theatre stage between plays and also at court ball-dances. This style of dancing was influenced by the French court and a ’turn-out’ started to occur. Step-dancing was taught at dancing classes in many parts of England, Scotland and Ireland, for dancing-masters would travel to teach both fashionable townsfolk and rural communities. Hornpipes were particularly popular and from recorded notation it appears that the ’shuffle’ was a common element. By the nineteenth century, step-dancing was probably only found in the more isolated areas of Cumbria, East Anglia, Devon and parts of Scotland and Ireland. Steps have been collected from dancers in these regions well into the twentieth century.

Dancing in clogs

The earliest known clog dance steps come from the East Lancashire mill towns around Colne and date from the early 1800s. Inspired by the rhythm and movement of the machinery, these steps consist of beats made by sliding and tapping the toes and heels and have virtually no ’shuffles’. Other similar styles have been found on canal barges in Lancashire and amongst coal-miners in northern England, southern Scotland and Wales. By 1880 the competition clog hornpipe was being performed on the music-hall stages of cities like Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Glasgow and London, and by 1883 Dan Leno had become the ’Clog Dancing Champion of the World’. The style of dancing seems to have merged with the earlier step-tradition for it was danced higher on the toes with a much greater use of ’shuffles’. Some dancers even performed on pedestals and sheets of glass.

Clogs to taps

By the 1900s competition clog dancing in the music-halls was declining in popularity and it is now acknowledged that due to its ’lower-class’ status and associations with betting and riotous behaviour, clog dancing was considered an ’unworthy art’ and was systematically suppressed by managements of the higher class variety theatres. By this time, jazz rhythms had come over from America and dancers had discovered the glamour of the tap shoe, however, many successful performers of stage and screen owed their dancing skills to the clog dance tradition.

Revival

After the Second World War, clog dance was re-discovered by the ’Folk Revival’ and much effort went into collecting clog steps and memories from dancers who had either performed in the hey-day of clog dancing or who had inherited steps through their families and the communities in which they lived. This repertoire is still taught and performed today, though many groups are starting to devise their own material.

Text reproduced by kind permission of Alex Fisher.

Find out more

You can find out more about clog dancing in the FARNE article The Dancing Master. The article includes an audio clip in which George Hepple describes how his grandfather was taught to dance by the 19thC travelling dancing master and composer Robert Whinham.








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